Not A Muslim Cartoon Scandal


In the ongoing uprising in the Arab world critical caricatures and images of leaders and of political life have played an important role. Such images have been used not only to channel feelings and sentiments, they have also been used as a means of protest.

We will understand collective action in the Arab world if we know something about the lives and living conditions of ordinary people, and the ways in which economies and political situations have evolved across the Arab nations. Our problem in the West, of course, is that we usually know very little about these other lives and situations — especially those aspects of their life that do not match the West’s stereotyped images of Islam and Muslim life.

When the protests erupted starting in Tunisia, cartoonist Saad Hajo, whose origins are Syrian and who lived in Lebanon for several years before moving to Sweden, published several cartoons in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, including this image of Tunisia’s president Ben Ali:

Cartoon by Saad Hajo

The caption reads: "The president who was in for life, has got his sentence cut short by the people". The president convicted by the people is a powerful very image.

This image, created in Norrköping, Sweden and published in Beirut was quickly seen by to a wider audience. Hajo received information that his drawing had been sighted at a demonstration in Tunisia, blown up and printed on a big sheet of cloth.

Another image Hajo created was this one of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.


Cartoon by Saad Hajo

Such images emphasise that the protests had two fronts — on the internet and in the street. The insurgent activities might have been connected and propelled in part by Facebook and Twitter but the battles were won in the streets and squares — as this cartoon by Syrian artist Sahar Burhan suggests.


Cartoon by Sahar Burhan

And the lives still being lost in Libya, Syria and elsewhere are not virtual. The possibility to meet, gather and act has been facilitated by social media but the step to action has arisen from a fundamental popular belief in democratic action.

Cartoon by Sahar Burhan

The protests were organised from below in Tunisia and Egypt by ordinary people who managed to overthrow dictators and turn their countries towards democracy. This is especially so as uncertain images emerge from Libya today. Is it a civil war? Is it a western intervention to "inject democracy"? Or is it the oil…?

Cartoon by Saad Hajo

Images and drawings published during the insurrections can help develop a more complex understanding of the popular feelings that circulated in the cities and squares of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and beyond.

The notion that it could be the "Arab masses" who are today’s leaders of democracy is provocative not least because we are so used to the opposite media images of people from those parts of the world: the "hordes" from the south and east that are swarming across the Mediterranean sea, and the borders to the civilised world, to fill up our western living spaces.

Such images are conjured up frequently, especially in Europe: the multitude refugees threatening "our" shores and lives. Positive images of the successful democratic actions initiated in Tunisia and Egypt should not to be forgotten.

Last year the Swedish cultural project The Museum of Forgetting staged an exhibition of cartoons from the Arab world with artists Sahar Burhan and Saad Hajo.

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